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Sunday, January 18, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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White House Columbus Statue Isn't The First To Be Vandalized

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - She won't say who she is or why she did it. But the woman who authorities say used spray paint to deface a sculpture of Christopher Columbus in the White House on Tuesday chose a form of vandalism that is far from unheard of. Only the location was unusual.

All over the hemisphere - in Chile and Mexico; in Honduras and El Salvador; in Minneapolis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and New York City - statues of the 15th-century explorer have been defaced by paint-wielding protesters so many times in recent years that the act might now be considered a cliche.

Aiming to demythologize the Italian voyager who opened the New World 506 years ago, demonstrators repeatedly have soaked memorials to him in red - symbolizing, they say, the blood of countless Indians who perished under European expansion.

The woman in Tuesday's White House incident is accused of using reddish-brown paint. During a public tour of the executive mansion, while in the historic Blue Room - a room filled with valuable antiques - authorities say she zeroed in on sculpted busts of Columbus and Italian sailor Amerigo Vespucci, a New World explorer who was a Columbus contemporary.

She remains in federal custody, a Jane Doe, charged with felony destruction of government property.

Was the act a political statement?

Where others have targeted Columbus statues that are easily accessible - in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park, Minnesota's State Capitol rotunda, Manhattan's Columbus Circle and outside Union Station in Washington, to name just a few - was Jane Doe a pioneer in her own right, a protester allegedly successful in defacing perhaps the hardest-to-get-at Columbus statue in the land?

"We don't know," said Channing Phillips, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Washington. "She's given us no clue. It's really a mystery at the present time."

In U.S. District Court on Friday, Magistrate Judge Alan Kay ordered her committed to a secure federal facility for a 45-day psychiatric evaluation. Phillips said the woman, who appears to be in her thirties, refused to cooperate with mental health specialists at the District of Columbia's St. Elizabeths Hospital, where she was held Wednesday and Thursday.

According to a court affidavit filed by the Secret Service, the woman entered the oval-shaped, first-floor Blue Room about 11 a.m. and lingered there. About noon, the affidavit says, she pulled a small container of touch-up paint from her purse and sprayed the two busts, each of them nearly two centuries old. She was arrested almost immediately by a uniformed Secret Service officer.

As for why she was let through a White House security checkpoint - which includes a metal detector and random bag searches - the Secret Service has said that an officer saw the paint container in her purse but was unconcerned. She also had an eight-inch screwdriver in her purse.

Though she initially identified herself as Lisa Jones of Buffalo, she later denied that was her name. She apparently has no criminal record.

Indians in Bolivia, Mexico, Chile and elsewhere in Latin America have defaced Columbus statues several times since 1992, the 500th anniversary of his voyage. Activists in the United States - in some cases Native Americans, but often not - also have regularly used paint to make their point about the explorer.

"Stolen land" and "murderer," protesters wrote at the base of a 50-foot Columbus statue in Pittsburgh after defacing it three months ago.

"Killing the Indians," read a sign at a statue coated with red paint, in Torrington, Conn., in 1992.

"500 years of genocide," was the message left on the statue in Columbus Memorial Park outside Union Station here on Oct. 14, 1991, after demonstrators splashed the sculpture with red paint.

"Columbus was the faithful Christ-bearer who spent most of his time searching for gold and then murdering and enslaving the natives when he found none," a participant in the Union Station rally later wrote in The Washington Times.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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